American writer T.C. Boyle has published 15 novels and over a hundred short stories in the last three decades.

His works oscillate between zany and serious and contemporary and historical, and he has a particular penchant for megalomaniacs and environmental themes.

They’ve won numerous awards, including the PEN/Faulkner award, the Prix Médicis étranger (in France), and the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement from the Los Angeles Times.

Boyle, 68, is based in Santa Barbara, California where, until last year, he taught at the University of Southern California. He recently took the time to talk to us about his writing and his most recent novel, The Terranauts (Ecco).

The story is a fictional reworking of the Biosphere 2 experiment that took place in the United States in the early 1990s. A team of people were sealed inside a self-contained environment for two years with the ambitious goal of becoming entirely self-sustaining to the point of even producing their own oxygen via the plants housed inside. What could possibly go wrong? Boyle takes the idea and runs with it in a poignant and often hilarious novel (see review below, “Living in a bottle”).

The following is an excerpt from our interview.

The Terranauts is a little different from your previous novels. For a start, there are three narrators and stylistically, it seems more informal, essentially conversational in tone. How conscious or intuitive was that choice?

Everything in my fiction is organic, purely, and it happens in the moment.

That said, of course, I do have certain structural ideas at the outset of a project, and here it came to me that having these three chatty first-person narrators would make this story about a hermetic life much more intimate than if I’d employed a more usual narrative structure.

In your 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain you took a close look at social divisions within American society. Using the same lens, The Terranauts could be read as an examination of an exclusionary, white, middle-class bubble. Was that a conscious metaphor?

I very much like your take on the notion of exclusiveness here. All this money – US$150mil 1990 dollars and $10mil a year in operating costs – to keep eight white, middle-class Americans isolated from the hurts of the larger world.

What would a space colony look like? What will happen to the rest of us when the environment – if you’ll excuse the expression – turns to shit?

Do you hope to influence readers by writing around environmental issues, or are you simply expounding your world-view?

I am exploring issues of biology, ecology and metaphysics for my own health and enlightenment. I really do want definitive answers to these questions: Who are we? Where are we? Why are we?

Having obviously spent time thinking through possible scenarios and pitfalls in this type of closed system, do you have any advice for entrepreneur and futurist Elon Musk and his planned Martian settlements?

Try strenuously to preserve what has evolved here over billions of years, because it is all but impossible to recreate it.

Environmentalists say, “Save the Planet!” Well, the planet will save itself, at least for three and a half billion years more. It is our species which needs saving, as we are destroying the conditions which allowed us to emerge in the first place.

You have a new collection of short stories coming out called The Relive Box And Other Stories – can you tell us about that?

This volume consists of 12 new stories, in varying modes, many of which concern environmental themes, as, for instance, “The Fugitive”, which also appeared in The New Yorker in the past year, and deals with the ethics of incarcerating people who carry multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Many writers are reticent about reading their work, but you seem to revel in reading to an audience.

I love performing stories for audiences because the process takes me back to the earliest stories I received, both from my mother, who taught me to read, and my eighth-grade English teacher, Donald Grant, an amateur actor, who read aloud to our class on Friday afternoons.

You’ve also been recorded reading some of your books.

I have acted in this capacity in a number of my other audio books, including most recently, the last story collection, A Death In Kitchawank, which forms “Part IV” of the Collected Stories, Volume 2. I do plan to narrate the next collection, The Relive Box And Other Stories.

You’ve said many times that your favourite of your novels is Water Music. Do you have a second favourite?

I recently had the experience of re-reading one of my previous books, the first time I have ever done this. The reason was because of film interest, not that I would ever consider writing the film script or even participating in the project – I am not for hire; my only project is my life’s work in fiction – but in order to consider it telephonically with the interested parties. The book is Drop City. I hadn’t even glanced at it since I delivered it to my publisher in 2002. My impression? Good stuff. Very good stuff.

Do you have a favourite short story of your own work?

That’s a bit tougher since there are so many of them. And it will get tougher still because on the horizon, a few years off, will be a book of the “Best Of”, say 25 stories culled out of the 150 or so I’ve published.

For today, though, let’s say I’m pretty high on the most recent one to see print, which will be included in The Relive Box. The story is “Are We Not Men?” and it deals with gene-editing technology and what it might mean for our species. (Interested readers can find it in the Nov 7 issue of The New Yorker.)

What’s the secret to your immense productivity?

The spectre of death.

Which of your books has been the most commercially successful, and to what do you attribute that success?

The Tortilla Curtain. Because its central issue – illegal immigration, exclusion and the fight for resources – remains a controversial topic, and, it seems, always will.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am revisiting books from the early 1960s by way of research into the setting and zeitgeist of the novel I’ve just begun writing.

Some of the titles are obvious – The Fan Man (by William Kotz-winkle), The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe), Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) – but a whole passel of more obscure titles play here as well.

You’ve written about many megalomaniacs, their successes and downfalls. Does this give you any insight into possible outcomes and challenges facing the United States at the moment?

America, as I write, is about to plunge into darkness unfathomable. The world will shake. And it will be very, very grim for all of us.


Read the review of The Terranauts here.